By Andrew Biggs
One of my staff bought a car this week.
It’s a second-hand Nissan Silphy, which according to the old owner is “as good as new”, a statement one must take with Goderich, Ontario, the largest operating salt mine in the world. Nevertheless my staff member is thrilled to be paying 8,000 Baht to a finance company for the rest of his working life along with any future offspring’s.
It was the picture of the car he posted on Facebook that piqued my interest.
My staff’s name is Pee, and being of the younger generation documents his entire life on the internet. This is the staff member who got a nose job two years ago. Instead of holing himself up in his seedy Ramkhamhaeng apartment for a month, he chose instead to photograph the nasal swelling and document his pain and progress on a daily basis.
It’s the same when he goes through a break up, and boy do those come frequently. Semi-poetic paragraphs of lament hit that Facebook timeline like a sledgehammer for the world to see and comment on. “When, oh when, will this darkness leave me?” he wails on Facebook, garnering hundreds of sympathetic replies with the exception of mine: “When you turn the friggin’ light switch on. Wash your face and get to work immediately.”
So it was no great surprise he would post a pic of his first-ever new car on Facebook. So what was wrong with the pic?
I respectfully asked Pee if I could use his photograph in my column this week. Luckily for us, Pee is going through another breakup so he is too busy constructing self-pitying tomes of lost love to consider the ramifications of foregoing copyright, and he assented.
In the picture you can see the new car, bright and shiny thanks to some excellent last-minute detailing. There’s Pee in front of it, wearing a t-shirt that color-coordinates with the bright red ribbon on the windscreen, placed there either to celebrate the event or to cover a dirty big unyielding scratch on the bonnet.
Kneeling on the ground, Pee humbly performs the traditional Thai wai of respect. In his hands he clutches yellow garlands as an offering to the vehicle. This is what offended me.
The next day I call him into my office.
Pee sashays in, holding up a glistening set of keys and making them tinkle as he smiles broadly.
“Yes I know. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” I say.
I explain that his Facebook picture bothers me. In this day and age, why is Pee prostrating himself in front of a car? Why is he worshipping a vehicle, as opposed to a deity or even aspiring qualities such as goodness and honesty?
Just last year a famous TV celeb saw his career go down the tube thanks to a minor traffic accident. Furious that a motorcyclist swiped his Mini Cooper, he demanded the motorcyclist prostrate before his car as an act of humiliation. The whole nation chastised him for that. Didn’t Pee learn anything from that episode? Why is an intelligent (albeit perpetually heartbroken) young man like Pee praying before an engine?
“Oh no, Khun Andrew,” replies Pee. “You misunderstand. I’m not praying to the car. I’m praying to Mae Ya Nang.”
The name throws me. Mae means “mother”, Ya is “grandmother” and Nang means “a married woman”. I have the holy trinity of the female species in one name.
Pee sees the confusion on my face.
“She is a goddess. An angel. Thais believe in her. And her role is to look after cars.”
Welcome to another well-kept secret of Thai culture and society, I hear myself thinking. For the next few days I ask a number of people about Mae Ya Nang and indeed, she is widely known and respected.
“She is an ancient Thai deity who looks after travellers,” one friend, a teacher, explained. “She looks after boats, carts, bicycles and any other vehicles. Since Thai society in the past relied heavily on waterways, Thais respected her a great deal. They often had ceremonies paying homage to her.”
In this modern era she shows no signs of abating. Her influence extends to airplanes and you can find her image in cockpits. “It’s for good luck and safe travel,” says Pee.
My accountant appears out of nowhere, and before I can sign off on more debt, she adds that in the South you will see gaily-colored ribbons tied around long-tailed boats. These are offerings to Mae Ya Nang. “Fishermen believe she will protect them when they go out to sea, and bring them lots of fish. You will fishermen praying to her on the shore before setting out each day.”
There is quite an elaborate ritual associated to her as well. This involves five different types of fruit, a bowl of rice, a glass of water, tobacco or betel nut and three cigarettes. It appears Mae Ya Nang enjoys a puff, and I am immediately endeared to her.
So when you get a new car you place all this stuff on a table in front of the car. Start the engine, press the horn three times, light nine joss sticks and make the offering to Mae Ya Nang.
That last sentence I translated from the internet, on a page devoted to Mae Ya Nang and how to pay her respect. There are many such pages. It was interesting to read the comments after one article; one poor chap was in a terrible state. He’d been lighting a single joss stick as opposed to the mandatory nine. “What am I to do?” he lamented in a tone not unlike Pee during one of his myriad Facebook post-break-up posts.
Personally, I am surprised that after so long in Thailand I have never come across Mae Ya Nang before. Maybe it’s because I don’t go fishing that often. I appreciate her role in Thai society, protecting and safeguarding the vehicles of travellers, though it has to be said with the utmost respect to Thais and Thai culture — she is not doing a good job.
I want to deferentially shake Mae Na Yang by her celestial shoulders and tell her that she really does need to pay greater attention to her duty. Thailand may be one of the few countries where you pray to a deity who specifically looks after vehicles; why, then, does Thailand sit at number two on the list of countries with the most road accident deaths? An average of 24,000 people die on the roads annually. At 44 deaths per 100,000 people, we are second only to Namibia, and even then we’re knocking at that African nation’s door — they have 45 deaths per 100,000.
Shouldn’t the gods be making a difference?
When it comes to deities, Thais are quite pragmatic. “That’s carelessness on the driver’s part,” said my teacher friend. “No god can help you if you speed.”
Pee agrees. “She can only help me up to a point,” he says. “If I speed, or drink while driving, then that is my mistake, not hers.”
At this point I apologize to Pee for jumping to the conclusion he was praying to his car to show it deference, as opposed to praying to a beautiful ancient goddess.
And yet my new knowledge still leaves me feeling uncomfortable. Belief is an entirely personal affair; having a lead foot is not. As Pee hits the Bangkok roads, one of 700 cars that enter them daily, it is a little disappointing that despite having a beautiful deity looking over us from the heavens, even she cannot stop us wantonly killing one another on the roads. Oh what fools these mortals be.